Five Things to Get You Started with Craig Finn

Five Things to Get You Started with Craig Finn

I first encountered Craig Finn as frontman of the Hold Steady through their 2006 release Boys and Girls in America. Though it was sort of their breakout album, I discovered it 10 years later while in college in the Twin Cities. Reminiscent of Cheap Trick and Thin Lizzy, they sound like classic rock with some modern twists. It was big and loud but the vocals and lyrics are what really struck me, and not just because I realized he often referenced the Twin Cities. Finn crafts strange poetry about being drunk, high, and otherwise out of it, like one chorus from “Stuck Between Stations”:

“Yeah, he was drunk and exhausted

But he was critically acclaimed and respected

He loved the Golden Gophers

But he hated all the drawn-out winters

He likes the warm feeling

But he’s tired of all the dehydration

Most nights were kind of fuzzy

But that last night, he had total retention”

Finn’s singing style is unique, sometimes closer to shout singing, other times more gentle and delicate. Almost every song is a story, and Finn jam packs them with long, elaborate lines. I listened to that album over and over. Eventually, I realized I’d heard him before. Finn had been on an NPR interview I heard while driving from Montana to Minnesota in 2015, promoting his solo album Faith in the Future. Though I liked the song they played, the full album didn’t quite grab me the first time around. But when I came back to his solo stuff after doing a deep dive into the first few Hold Steady records, I fell for it hard. His next solo album, 2017’s We All Want the Same Things, absolutely floored me, and I saw him play at the Turf Club in St. Paul on tour for the album. 

The more I listened, the more I searched for, and I then found Finn’s first band, Lifter Puller. Their albums completely absorbed me, and took over my brain. I couldn’t stop listening. Every time I got in the car, I’d play Lifter Puller or Half Dead and Dynamite, both originally released in 1997. It’s always strange to become obsessed with an album released more than twenty years ago. You rave about it to anyone and everyone, but it’s not exactly the hottest new thing that everyone will get into. Finn released another solo album in 2019, I Need A New War. He played at the Fine Line in Minneapolis for that tour, and I got him to sign a record. 

Finn is an artist I can always listen to no matter my mood, but when you’re just coming to an artist, it can be hard to know where to start listening, especially across three bands. So, here are five tidbits, some big and some small, that show why I came to love Craig Finn’s music. Maybe you will too.

1. Craig Finn sings about multiple casts of characters, unique to each of his bands.

Finn is most famous for his lyrics, which tell complex stories about drugs and parties and the messy lives of the people involved. Many of these characters recur within each of Craig Finn and his groups’ discographies. The first two Lifter Puller LPs refer to characters named Juanita and the Eyepatch Guy (in “Star Wars Hips” and “To Live and Die in LBI”). The third, Fiestas and Fiascos, takes these references further and tells the story of the downfall of a nightclub through arson and murder, seemingly brought on by Juanita and the Eyepatch Guy. While not all their songs reflect this wider narrative, Lifter Puller shows Finn’s writing style leaning into a recurring, intertwining narrative. 

With a new band came a new cast of characters. The Hold Steady has Gideon, Charlemagne, and Halleluiah (also known as Holly). Each one appears in multiple songs across the band’s first three albums (such as “Barfruit Blues,” “Hornets! Hornets!” and “First Night”). This cast is usually getting into trouble, drinking too much, taking too much, and never really changing. While they don’t appear as regularly on later Hold Steady albums, they encapsulate the sort of characters that do. They’re people who make bad choices, stick with them, and then go on to make more bad choices. Finn often sings about “the high and the hangover,” and these people are all about the high. The consequences and the headaches the next day are never really touched on. These people live for the party, the high times, the fun and craziness.The hangovers just fade into the background.

With his solo work, Finn doesn’t use a recurring cast of characters, but he continues to craft vignettes and stories. Many of these songs, such as “Neumeyer’s Roof” and “Preludes,” draw on his own experiences. “Blankets” tells of a guy who gets a bad medical diagnosis and sets off to find someone from his past. “Tangletown” narrates two unhappy people hiding their dissatisfaction with their lives in mostly empty interactions, including with each other. Finn’s solo songs focus on people trying to do the right thing to mixed results. No matter which artist’s name is on the album, Finn writes songs that tell a story.

Lifter Puller, Finn’s First Band

2. “Mission Viejo” is among the earliest songs he wrote.

“Mission Viejo” started in Finn’s dorm at Boston College. It was a couple years before he would start a band and eventually record it as the penultimate track on Lifter Puller’s self-titled debut. The song is propulsive, detailing a drug-addled trip to California as Finn sings “Coming down too quick, my own private apocalypse / I’m usually pretty slick, miss, this is just some summer slippage.” It captures the mood of spinning wheels and things getting a little out of hand but all probably being okay. It’s not exactly a sad or a happy song, but there’s doubt underlying, especially with the final lines, “When classes start I’ll quit, I’ve got until September 6th / When classes start I’ll quit this, this is just some summer slippage.” It shows that even at the beginning Finn had some serious songwriting chops.

It has everything I love in a Craig Finn song: people making poor choices but trying their best, a sense of doom right alongside some real joy. It’s a perfectly melancholy song with a not so melancholy sound. The instrumentation has a more stripped down, almost punk sound, but with guitar that sounds like shoegaze surf rock. I’ve searched for other songs with a similar sound, but nothing can match just how much I love that song. While Lifter Puller only reunites every so often, Finn still plays it for his solo shows, though with a stripped down acoustic sound. I’ve enjoyed the recordings I’ve heard, and hope to one day hear one of my all time favorite songs played live.

Finn in 2007 / Photo by Lee Pelligrini

3. Craig Finn had some bad luck in college with regards to sickness.

During his time at Boston College, Finn went to San Diego for a spring break trip of partying, possibly what inspired the aforementioned “Mission Viejo.” When he returned to campus, he felt super sick, and a trip to the infirmary later, he learned he had caught mono. After a couple days at the infirmary, he was released, but soon after, he broke out in red spots. He went back to the infirmary, and he was told he also had chickenpox. He was quarantined for a month, but still a few people he knew also caught the infectious disease, though it’s not clear if he was the source of the infection. I cannot imagine the terrible luck to not only catch mono but also chickenpox in college. This experience is what inspired the Lifter Puller song “Mono,” a song with only four lines but an awesome instrumental passage that closes their first album. It starts off slow but this high, distorted guitar riff crashes in. It’s a simple riff but has this great muddy sound that somehow always makes me feel emotional. It’s one of those endings that just encapsulates the whole feeling of the album: wistful, overwhelmed, nostalgic. And it was inspired by some absolutely terrible luck.

The Hold Steady in 2019 / Photo by D. James Goodwin

4. Throughout his songwriting, Craig Finn has mentioned at least thirty different US States.

Alongside his casts of characters, Finn’s songs are defined by geography, and his geographic references are widespread. The songs on his solo albums reference places all over the US. Both his solo work and his work with the Hold Steady reference Brooklyn, Finn’s home since 2000, often. His songs with Lifter Puller often mention Boston, where Finn went to college. The Twin Cities and Minnesota in general also come up often since Finn lived there before and after college.

His career of touring has taken him all over, playing shows in all 50 states, plenty of which are mentioned in his songs. “Blankets” is inspired by an old friend of Finn’s who moved to Montana, plus his story of being at the unfriendliest bar he’s ever been at in Billings. I have a lot of relatives there, and my time in the small city confirms it is a decidedly unwelcoming place to many. In his other solo songs, he’s referenced Scranton, Pennsylvania; South Dakota; Holyoke, Massachusetts; and Mephis, Tennessee. 

Finn also loves to reference different geographic areas in his Lifter Puller and Hold Steady songs. Lifter Puller’s “Nassau Coliseum” is full of them. The coliseum itself was the site of a Grateful Dead concert Finn attended, and Finn ends the song listing different locations his friends from college ended up at:

“Or in New Jersey and not Manhattan

Or in the Hamptons, back on campus

And out in Boston, and out in Cambridge

And out in Brookline, back in Brooklyn

And on the East Coast, the Carolinas

And Virginia, and in Memphis

And the Twin Cities, and on the West Coast

And in Alaska, and Costa Rica

And in Jamaica, and in Miami”

It may seem like a strange lyrical strategy, but the listing accompanied by a serious musical swell and crash gets me every time. It’s one of many of his songs that takes me over and changes my mood no matter how I’m feeling when it starts. Ybor City, Florida also pops up in multiple Hold Steady songs as a result of Finn meeting some guys from Tampa and hearing about lots of wild parties. The geography of Finn’s songwriting is inescapable.

Finn in the now-closed Triple Rock Social Club Green Room in 2017 / Photo by Emmet Kowler

5. Craig Finn is a Twin Cities guy.

This statement is both a surface level fact and also not telling the full story. He was born in Boston, and his family moved to Edina, Minnesota when he was six. Edina is one of many suburbs of the Twin Cities, southwest of Minneapolis. He lived there until he went to Boston for college, then moved to Minneapolis for about six years after he graduated. He’s lived in New York since 2000, but his Twin Cities connections have left their impression on him. “Blankets,” “Preludes,” “Tangletown,” “They Know Where I Live,” and “Be Honest” all reference different parts of the Twin Cities.

And, to make it personal, Finn’s singing about the Twin Cities made it all a little more special to me. I grew up in Montana, moved to St. Paul for college, and after graduating, moved across the river to Minneapolis. That’s when I actually started feeling like a Twin Cities person. It wasn’t just a temporary thing, it’s my home for the foreseeable future. And hearing someone I really enjoy singing about the city I live in really meant something to me, even more so since he wrote plenty of Lifter Puller songs when he himself moved to Minneapolis after college. If you live in a big city that’s always getting referenced like New York, LA, or Chicago, you might not notice it as much. But for a small town person, it feels like you’re in a place that’s happening and cool when a guy is singing about the place. And then when he namedrops Montana it feels pretty special too.

When he signed my record at the Fine Line, I was pretty tongue tied. I told him that I loved the show and I’d seen him play at the Turf Club too. There was more I could have said, but I couldn’t put it into words then. I realized what I would want to say is that I owe a huge part of my connection to Minneapolis and the Twin Cities to him. He made it feel so much more special than just the city where I ended up for work.

And there are those funny things when you look back after discovering someone who’s been around for a bit. You look at release dates or previous tour venues that are places you suddenly know, and you think about where you were at that time. For me, most of those old tour dates are when I was still in Montana, but it’s exciting to think about all these shows that were happening not far from where I live now. It’s all part of getting to know a place, and for me, Craig Finn’s been a huge part of my relationship with the Twin Cities. This is where I fell in love with his music (solo, Lifter Puller, and the Hold Steady), his cast of characters, his geography obsession, and where he helped me feel all the more connected to Minneapolis. 


Top Photo by Shervin Lainez

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